Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Egypt defends storming of civil society groups

By AYA BATRAWY | Associated Press Jan. 1, 2012

CAIRO — A top Egyptian official responsible for overseeing civil
society groups on Sunday defended sweeps through the offices of 10 human
rights and pro-democracy organizations, rejecting denunciations from the
U.S., U.N. and Germany.

It was the first comment from the Egyptian government since the sweeps
Thursday that targeted, among others, U.S.-based groups invited to observe
Egypt's months-long election process.

Reports of heavily armed police and soldiers storming into offices,
sealing the doors, rifling through files and confiscating computers set
off a wave of international protest against Egypt's rulers.

International Cooperation Minister Faiza Aboul Naga defended the operation
as a legitimate investigation into organizations suspected of operating
without permits and receiving "political funding" against the law.

Aboul Naga pointed to repeated complaints from the judiciary and the
ruling military about civil society groups acceptng foreign funds to
promote protests and instability and "influence public opinion in
non-peaceful ways." She said the order to investigate the groups came from
independent judges.

The military has pointed to "foreign hands" behind clashes with protesters
who are demanding that the military hand over power to civilians. More
than 100 people have been killed in the clashes since the military took
over in February.

Rights groups dismiss the charges as an attempt to taint the reform
movement that led to the ouster of longtime President Hosni Mubarak in a
popular uprising that demanded democracy and human rights.

The U.S.-based National Democratic Institute, International Republican
Institute and Freedom House all denounced the sweeps.

Aboul Naga, who was appointed by Mubarak and has survived numerous Cabinet
reshuffles since his ouster, refused to call the coordinated security
sweep a raid.

"This was not a raid or a storming or an attack. It was an investigation,"
she said. "There are foreign civil society groups that began operating
without permission, which is totally outside the law."

Under Mubarak, the government rarely licensed pro-democracy and rights
organizations, forcing them to work in a legal limbo. The situation has
not changed since Mubarak's fall.

The U.S. said it received assurances that the sweeps would end. Defense
Secretary Leon Panetta spoke by phone to the head of Egypt's ruling
military council, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, to emphasize the
importance the Obama administration places on the country's democratic
transition and appreciation for the decision to stop the raids.

The State Department said Friday that U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson spoke
with members of the ruling military council and "received assurances that
the raids will cease and property will be returned immediately."

However, Justice Minister Adel Abdel-Hamid said Sunday that property and
bank statements would be returned only after a full investigation had been
completed. He did not say how long the investigations could take.

He also said the investigations would look into whether these groups are
behind the protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the focus of protests by
Egypt's reformers.

Aboul Naga said that the 17 offices belonging to the 10 organizations
investigated last week sprouted up across Egypt "behind the government's
back" only after the Jan. 25 uprising that led to Mubarak's toppling. The
International Cooperation minister also alleged that some of the
organizations under investigation have received 200 million dollars since
January, but she declined to name them or explain how the government
believes the money was spent.

The National Democratic Institute said it had been operating in Egypt
since 2005 "in an open and transparent manner, working to assist the
efforts of political parties and civic organizations." Freedom House said
it applied for permits three days before the sweep.

Also Sunday, the country's ruling generals announced that elections for
the 390-member upper house, a primarily advisory body, will conclude in
February rather than March. Voters will be electing 260 members, while the
remaining third will be appointed by the generals.

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